Dr. Seuss has always been one of my favorite authors, especially his book Oh, The Thinks You Can Think.
As a child I loved his clever rhymes, wild imagination, and endless array of made-up creatures. As an adult, I love his playfulness with the English language and how he really gets what a marvelous instrument the human brain is – including the fact that we can think up just about anything we want.
Whether a child or adult, our ability to imagine is one of the most remarkable aspects of the human brain. We are also illogical, irrational creatures whose brains serve us well and not so well in a thousand ways, especially in the business world. We like to think we make decisions in a rational, logical manner. In reality, our decision-making is largely driven by a plethora of blind spots, unconscious biases, outdated thinking patterns, and other brain tendencies that can get in the way of winning. It is all part of what I refer to as the science of thinking.
Unfettered thinking is a critical skill for today’s business leaders. And, even though we have the ability to think just about anything imaginable, we tend to think the same things over and over again. The following acronyms (I “thunk” these up myself) explain some of the reasons why:
- We take in much more information than the brain can process at one time, so it acts as a filter, constantly screening in and screening out data based on the perceived value of the information. During this process, the brain tends to screen out information that contradicts our prevailing view of the world and let in that which supports it. As a result, we See What We Want To See rather than what might really be in front of us.
- If information that contradicts our viewpoints manages to make it past our filters, the brain will often twist and distort it to align with our underlying beliefs and assumptions – or simply deny it outright. The more the information pushes the boundaries of what we believe to be true, the harder the brain works to make it fit our preconceived notions. So we end up with No, No, No It Can’t Be True rather than hmmm…I never thought of it that way.
- One of the downsides to our hyperactive imaginations is that in the absence of information, we Make Stuff Up. Our brain doesn’t like uncertainty, so it fills in the blanks with imaginary “data” based on our preconceived biases and beliefs. And it does not distinguish between made up data and ‘real’ data well most days. Often, our MSUs are far more negative than the reality of the situation.
- The human brain evolved by developing the ability to quickly identify and avoid predators. In the business world, this manifests itself in a tendency to avoid threats rather than pursue opportunities. Although we have the ability to imagine amazing things, the brain will quickly shut down new ideas that it perceives as threats to the status quo. So we end up with That Won’t Work Here, and the organizational lexicon becomes filled with “We’ve always done it this way,” “That’s a crazy idea!” and similar destructive thinking language.
- ESTWTWID, or Everyone Sees the World the Way I Do, is a leading cause of miscommunication and bad decision-making. Logically, we know this isn’t true. When presenting a new idea or a solution to a problem, our unconscious default position is to assume that everyone in the room sees it and interprets things the same way. “It’s obvious”… and “Don’t you think”… become commonplace sayings leaving no room for questioning, exploring, or considering multiple views.
Correcting Unhelpful Thunking
What can we do when our “thunkers” act contrary to what’s needed to move the organization forward?
First, become aware that our brain doesn’t always act in our best interests. Then build in processes to regularly review and analyze our thinking. For example:
- Challenge conventional wisdom about our customers, markets and industry
- Question our assumptions and biases about how we add value to customers
- Identify ways of thinking and working in our organizations and industries that haven’t changed in a long time
- Stop allowing “we’ve always done it this way” language to kill promising new ideas
Most of all, we need to expose ourselves (legally and appropriately of course) so that others understand our thinking process, and then encourage them to push back with their perspectives. Overtly acknowledging that people see things differently will go a long way toward eliminating low-quality decisions due to misunderstandings or miscommunication.
As the good Dr. said, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” To that I would add, “You’ll steer a lot better and get where you want if you ponder all the things you can thunk!”
Call to action: The next time you present a new idea to your team, expose your thinking and ask for pushback in return.